Jonathan Welsh AOPA
Destination: District Of Columbia – National Celebration of GA Flyover On Track For May 11
May 10, 2024
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  • After years of planning, rehearsing, and revising a singular, spectacular event that requires precise timing and cooperation among all guests and participants, there comes a time when you just have to get on with it.

    What might sound a bit like an elaborate wedding is something arguably more challenging—flying dozens of general aviation aircraft through some of the most heavily restricted and defended airspace in the nation while keeping all involved happy.

    Such is the gist of the mission profile for the AOPA National Celebration of General Aviation Flyover, taking place this Saturday, May 11, at 1,000 feet over the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Fortunately for the organizers, the U.S. Congress and officials of 11 agencies including the FAA, the Transportation Security Administration, and the Secret Service are working with AOPA to coordinate the flight, which will approach along the Potomac River before turning to follow the National Mall, using the Washington Monument as a course marker.

    The flight

    There will be a lot for aviation enthusiasts and the general public to see during Saturday’s airborne exhibition, starting with AOPA President Mark Baker’s Beechcraft Model 17 Staggerwing, which will lead the flight. The Staggerwing is the epitome of Golden Age innovation, with advanced design features such as an enclosed cockpit and retractable landing gear. A Howard DGA, a WACO UPF–7, and a Fairchild 24 will join the Staggerwing in the Golden Age “chapter” of the flight.

    Other GA chapters include the postwar period, with a North American Navion among the represented aircraft; the trainer era, with a Cessna 172; vertical flight; homebuilt aircraft; backcountry flying; business jets; and more.

    Former AOPA editor in chief Thomas B. Haines and longtime aviation news correspondent Miles O’Brien, both highly knowledgeable and experienced aviators, will provide commentary and background for a livestream of the flyover.

    Air boss

    Mike Ginter, AOPA Vice President of Airports and State Advocacy—and air boss for the flight—has been formulating what amounts to an operations order for participating pilots including departure times and intervals that will allow proper deconfliction among the wide range of aircraft types and performance levels. With all of the aircraft sharing the same altitude, the flight had to be staged carefully based on aircraft and pilot capabilities.

    “During the briefing I tried to drive simplicity,” Ginter said, noting that every pilot’s primary mission is to maintain the assigned altitude and airspeed and remain calm, knowing they are not in danger of being intercepted by the military or sanctioned by the FAA for airspace violations that normally would apply in the Flight Restricted Zone.

    Cooperation from air traffic control has been instrumental in keeping the flyover on track. Ginter said John Hall, an air traffic control specialist with Potomac Consolidated Tracon, helped clear the way for the event and organized ATC participation.

    “Thanks to John Hall, we are able to get into the belly of the beast. John and his colleagues at Potomac Tracon were incredible planning partners,” Ginter said.

    Recording history

    The celebration, which represents a lengthy vetting and approval process, marks 85 years for AOPA, which began advocating for GA and the rights of pilots in 1939. Among its goals is to highlight the many benefits our nation derives from the GA industry and infrastructure.

    While some might compare the planned parade of airplanes with a military operation because of the precision required, there are a few wedding-like elements such as photography and the intense pressure that goes with that job.

    AOPA Video Production Manager Josh Cochran described the process of deciding how best to approach shooting for the livestream of the event that will be broadcast on YouTube. The goal is to capture the best possible footage of every aircraft taking part. To do so, the team had to get permission to set up cameras on several rooftops along the route, including FAA headquarters, the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, and a private building.

    Then came the March 24 test flight of four aircraft led by AOPA President Mark Baker. The flight was designed to make sure the big event would flow smoothly, and while Ginter called the exercise “a piece of cake,” the video crews discovered unexpected gaps they needed to fill.

    “The practice run showed us how much work we still had to do,” Cochran said. After adjusting camera positions, shooting sequences, and other details of their plan, the livestream team members are confident they can produce a memorable show that will keep the audience engaged.

    The pressure is on, given that the stream, by design, is the way most people will get to see the event.